Following Germany's military reforms of the 1920s, Heinz Guderian emerged as a strong proponent of mechanised forces. Within the Inspectorate of Transport Troops, Guderian and colleagues performed theoretical and field exercise work. Guderian met with opposition from some in the General Staff, who were distrustful of the new weapons and who continued to view the infantry as the primary weapon of the army. Among them, Guderian claimed, was Chief of the General Staff Ludwig Beck (1935–38), whom he alleged was sceptical that armoured forces could be decisive. This claim has been disputed by later historians. James Corum wrote:
Following the invasion of Poland, German occupation policy especially targeted the Jews but also brutalized non-Jewish Poles. In pursuit of lebensraum, Germany sought systematically to destroy Polish society and nationhood. The Nazis killed Polish priests and politicians, decimated the Polish leadership, and kidnapped the children of the Polish elite, who were raised as “voluntary Aryans” by their new German “parents.” Many Poles were also forced to perform hard labour on survival diets, were deprived of property and uprooted, and were interned in concentration camps.
The Auschwitz I main camp was a place of extermination, effected mainly by depriving people of elementary living conditions. It was also a centre for immediate extermination. Here were located the offices of the camp’s administration, the local garrison commander and the commandant of Auschwitz I, the seat of the central offices of the political department, and the prisoner labour department. Here too were the main supply stores, workshops and Schutzstaffel (SS) companies. Work in these administrative and economic units and companies was the main form of forced labour for the inmates in this camp.
A column of inmates reached the Gross-Rosen complex. Throughout February, the terribly overcrowded main camp at Gross-Rosen was cleared, and all 44,000 inmates were moved further west. An unknown number died in this last journey. In March 1945, Himmler ordered that no more prisoners should be killed, as he hoped to use them as hostages in negotiations with the Allies. Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.
The first gassings at Auschwitz took place in early September 1941, when around 850 inmates—Soviet prisoners of war and sick Polish inmates—were killed with Zyklon B in the basement of block 11 in Auschwitz I. The building proved unsuitable, so gassings were conducted instead in crematorium I, also in at Auschwitz I, which operated until December 1942. There, more than 700 victims could be killed at once. Tens of thousands were killed in crematorium I. To keep the victims calm, they were told they were to undergo disinfection and de-lousing; they were ordered to undress outside, then were locked in the building and gassed. After its decommissioning as a gas chamber, the building was converted to a storage facility and later served as an SS air raid shelter. The gas chamber and crematorium were reconstructed after the war. Dwork and van Pelt write that a chimney was recreated; four openings in the roof were installed to show where the Zyklon B had entered; and two of the three furnaces were rebuilt with the original components.
The commander of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Höss, stated in his autobiography that in 1941 (no exact date is given) he was summoned to Berlin, where Himmler informed him that Hitler had issued an order to solve the “Jewish Question” for good, and that the order was to be implemented by the SS. “The existing extermination places in the east are unsuited to a large scale, long-term action. I have designated Auschwitz for this purpose,” Himmler said.
December 8, 1941 - In occupied Poland, near Lodz, Chelmno extermination camp becomes operational. Jews taken there are placed in mobile gas vans and driven to a burial place while carbon monoxide from the engine exhaust is fed into the sealed rear compartment, killing them. The first gassing victims include 5,000 Gypsies who had been deported from the Reich to Lodz.
The Nazis targeted Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, twins, and the disabled. Some of these people tried to hide from the Nazis, like Anne Frank and her family. A few were successful; most were not. Those that were captured suffered sterilization, forced resettlement, separation from family and friends, beatings, torture, starvation, and death. Learn more about the victims of Nazi cruelty, both the children and adults.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, the German army expanded Hitler’s empire in Europe, conquering Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Beginning in 1941, Jews from all over the continent, as well as hundreds of thousands of European Gypsies, were transported to the Polish ghettoes. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked a new level of brutality in warfare. Mobile killing units called Einsatzgruppenwould murder more than 500,000 Soviet Jews and others (usually by shooting) over the course of the German occupation.
As Soviet armies advanced in 1944 and early 1945, Auschwitz was gradually abandoned. On January 18, 1945, some 60,000 prisoners were marched to Wodzisław Śląski, where they were put on freight trains (many in open cars) and sent westward to concentration camps away from the front. One in four died en route from starvation, cold, exhaustion, and despair. Many were shot along the way in what became known as the “death marches.” The 7,650 sick or starving prisoners who remained were found by arriving Soviet troops on January 27, 1945.
German operational theories were revised after the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles limited the Reichswehr to a maximum of 100,000 men, making impossible the deployment of mass armies. The German General Staff was abolished by the treaty but continued covertly as the Truppenamt (Troop Office), disguised as an administrative body. Committees of veteran staff officers were formed within the Truppenamt to evaluate 57 issues of the war. By the time of the Second World War, their reports had led to doctrinal and training publications, including H. Dv. 487, Führung und Gefecht der verbundenen Waffen (Command and Battle of the Combined Arms), known as das Fug (1921–23) and Truppenführung (1933–34), containing standard procedures for combined-arms warfare. The Reichswehr was influenced by its analysis of pre-war German military thought, in particular infiltration tactics, which at the end of the war had seen some breakthroughs on the Western Front and the manoeuvre warfare which dominated the Eastern Front.